American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’ Before we consider what this means to fiction writers, first let’s think about what makes good descriptive writing.
What makes a good description?
Good description draws a vivid picture. Vividness is created through detail. Think about focussing a camera lens; the further you twist the lens, the more you can make out – blurry shapes at first, then more and more detail until everything snaps into perfect focus. The image becomes clear.
Choosing the right details
As a writer, you don’t have the time or the capacity to describe every little thing in minute detail. Plus, that would be super boring for the reader. Why? Because not only will it take up a lot of time in which the plot will be standing still, but often what you might describe will already be familiar to the reader.
Your reader won’t learn anything new or experiencing anything interesting if you spend seventeen pages describing every object in a room, the dimensions of every piece of furniture or the exact shade of every character’s eyes. Yes, you might create a very precise picture this way, but its vividness – its aliveness – will be smothered.
Vividness is created through detail. But not by describing every detail. It’s created by describing a select few details – told slant.
What does it meant to tell something ‘slant’?
To tell something ‘slant’ means to describe something in a new way, from a slightly off-centred perspective; the thing being described is made unfamiliar by the act of looking at it differently.
Here’s an example. You might say:
The moon was shining.
That’s pretty clear. It’s pretty succinct. But it’s not very interesting. It’s not very vivid. So instead let’s tell is slant by slightly altering our perspective and choosing some details described in a new way to make them feel unfamiliar and interesting.
On the dam of the mill a fragment of broken bottle flashed like a small bright star, and there rolled by, like a ball, the black shadow of a dog.
This is an extract from a letter Anton Chekhov wrote to his brother that summarised his advice on writing. In this sentence, we get the impression that the moon is shining, but it’s not directly stated.
Instead, it’s shown indirectly (at a slant) through specific details made interesting through their interpretation (they’ve been made unfamiliar) – a piece of broken glass becomes a flashing star when the moonlight interacts with it; the shadow of a dog is given the quality of a rolling ball. Do we normally think about a dog’s shadow in this way? No – but the description works beautifully, and so a familiar image has been made new.
The problem with ‘show, don’t tell’
This piece of writing advice is often summarised as ‘show, don’t tell’, which encourages writers to avoid explaining what is happening in a story and instead provide visuals that demonstrate how it is happening. The Chekhov quote above is more widely know in this recast version:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
— Anton Chekhov
However, the advice ‘show, don’t tell’ is quite easy to misinterpret. It can lead writers to think they must show all the time – after all, fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to dramatise, not simply state things.
Fiction is more than a string of images
But fiction is more than drama and more than just creating a visual unfolding of action that plays out in the mind’s eye. A novel isn’t like a film that we imagine. One of the main differences and advantages of the novel is that it portrays a story through the lens of human experience.
So should you ‘show’ or should you ‘tell’? Balance is key. But because of the ambiguity of this piece of advice, I think it’s much more useful to think in terms of selecting the right details and telling them slant.